By Jenny Neyman
Things looked like they should for race day at Tsalteshi Trails on Sunday afternoon — cars filling the parking lot of the Wolverine Trailhead on Kalifornsky Beach Road, orange markings denoting the starting line and racecourse, clipboard-laden volunteers taking registrations and handing out numbered bibs, and participants layered in winter activewear, trotting in circles, swinging limbs and bouncing in place in order to stay warm and warm up for the effort to come.
But when race organizer Mike Crawford yelled, “Go,” things didn’t sound quite like they should for a mid-January event at the ski trails. Instead of the long, rhythmic schuss of skis on snow, there was the quick, staccato racket of ice-cleated footfalls running along bare, gravelly ground.
What was supposed to be the second installment of Tsalteshi’s Freeze Style weekly community ski race series had been turned into the Black Stone Axe Ridge Run instead — Tsalteshi meaning “Black Stone Axe Ridge” in the local Native Dena’ina language.
The volunteers, the equipment and the participants were ready to go. Tsalteshi had everything needed to hold a ski race, except:
“There’s no snow,” Crawford said. “We had a good start to the snow season and then it kind of went pear-shaped for a while, so the impetus was, ‘Let’s do something fun anyway and let’s adhere to winter rules because we still have a million miles of trails here, so let’s use them. Let’s get people outside, it’s a beautiful day, let’s make fun with lemons and lemonade.”
The “winter rules” to which Crawford is referring take effect once there’s skiable snow at Tsalteshi, and stipulate that there be no foot traffic on the ski trails for the duration of ski season, since the indentions left by shoes and boots cause problems for snow grooming.
While skiing hasn’t been particularly feasible since a warm spell struck the central Kenai Peninsula around Christmas, Tsalteshi’s winter rules remain in effect to preserve the scant amount of snow base still left on the trails.
But there is one exception to the no walking, running or hiking rule — the Mosquito Snowshoe Trail, a three-kilometer path snaking through the trails system from the Wolverine Trailhead to just behind Skyview Middle School. That’s open to foot traffic year-round, and doubles as a single-track mountain bike trail in the summer months.
The path is narrow, ungroomed and offers a wilderness feel of meandering through the woods, and also the wilderness experience of negotiating whatever conditions might come. In this case, ice. January’s freeze-thaw weather pattern has been melting what little snow cover existed in December and refreezing the puddles into patches of glassy glare ice.
Despite the challenge, 22 runners signed up for the race, from the Wolverine Trailhead up the ridge to Skyview Middle School and back down, and all 22 returned none the worse for wear. Crawford said he was happy with the turnout and the results.
“No casualties — I wish there was wood to knock on — no casualties around. People did stay upright. We strongly suggested that people use cleats or other grippy type of footwear. I tried to run in track spikes when I was marking the course and it got really exciting because there’s no grips on the heels. But the glissade aside, I’m very pleased people came appropriately equipped and did well.”
Adam Tafoya, of Sterling, said he thought the race would be a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
“Nice weather, sunshine, community, I think. Exercise,” he said.
To reach the turnaround point behind Skyview Middle School, runners emerging from the woods of Mosquito Trail had to descend the sun-exposed sledding hill, which looked more like a luge from the sled tracks repeatedly melting and refreezing.
Tafoya took one look at the shiny-smooth decline, then sank to a sit and sledded himself down the hill among a handful of other runners — including his wife, Melissa. That’s the only time he enlisted that method, though. The rest of the race he entrusted his cleats to keep him on his feet.
“It was a challenge for me. Mine didn’t grip as well as I think hers did. So downhill, mostly was a challenge. Uphill was a little easier.”
Rise’ Smith came up from Homer to do the race. She said it was an attempt to defeat cabin fever.
“Just to get out and run with other crazy people who want to run with ice spikes through the woods,” she said.
Crawford said that Tsalteshi has a full calendar of community ski events still planned for the rest of the season — or events of some sort, depending on conditions.
“On the horizon, yes, to the extent that there might be snow on the horizon. If all else fails, maybe we’ll hold more of these,” he said.
Black Stone Axe Ridge Run
Jan. 11, Tsalteshi Trails
Kent Peterson, 34:07; Tony Eskelin, 35:41; John Mohorcich, 37:54; Scott Huff, 38:44; Matt Pyhala, 43:38; Rise Smith, 46:20; Tammy Lafrancois, 49:12; Jane Fuerstenau; 49:49; Sondra Stonecipher, 51:02; Melissa Tafoya, 51:06; Adam Tafoya, 51:27; Jeff Helminiak, 51:35; Molly Hull, 54: 07; Sheila Best, 56:32; Jennifer Loop, 57:18; Julie English, 57:39; Christopher Pipkin, 1:02:04; Landon Showalter, 1:18:03; Natalie Kohler, 1:19:30; Jen Showalter, 1:19:39.